Thursday, December 31, 2009

The myth of "a self-made man"

I wish to welcome the new year 2010 with a sobering thought! Hence this post.

Many first-generation successful people across the world are often showered with the typical "Oh, he is a self-made man. We are so proud of him." This typically happens with people who have not had a family history of 'success' in the same field. This showering of praise is, in fact, so typical and regular, that people start getting accustomed to it, and some actually start believing it, i.e. they start believing that they are "truly self-made".

Believe me - nothing is further from the truth. THERE IS NOTHING LIKE A TRULY SELF-MADE MAN in this world.

So, if there is nothing like purely self-made, what is the truth? Who are achievers then? Are their achievements not worth celebrating?

The truth is - we are all mere reflections of sum total of all effort that has gone into our making by tens, or maybe hundreds of other individuals who are part of our lives. Our family, relatives, community and friends. Each one of them shapes a certain part of our personality, and without knowing it, we start owning it as if "we" built it in the first place! These individuals who affect our lives, are in turn, a product of many more such individuals who affected them, and so on. It's a really long chain!

The more successful you are, the more "polished" a reflection you are of the sum total of this aggregate effort of others. (Yes, this means that your effort is going into shaping others, at the same time.)

What kind of efforts go into the shaping of us, as human beings? I feel 4 most important factors are:

  1. Aggregate Human Evolution Effort - Lacs and lacs of humans have lived and died before us, and their entire learnings have gotten codified in some or the other format into us. Yes, "into us". There are two basic ways this codification happens - genes, and memes. Genes are the biological tools through which eons of cumulative group learning of mankind is passed onto the coming generations .. so like it or not - your parents' genes that were passed onto you, had eons of wisdom gathered at the cost of millions of human lives. Similarly, cultural learnings that are passed onto us, are memes. They are as profound, if not more, than genes. So we find that right from birth, we are inescapably tied to our past - and our personalities and character have strong links to everything that's preceded us. Of course, rationalists often contest this view, finding it too demeaning to accept. But I am sure of the importance of this singularly important fact - we are but just a reflection of our past humanity. Interestingly, this "toll tax" paid by humanity through the deaths of millions of humans by diseases (over millennia) has resulted in the fantastic immune system we carry within our bodies. To find out what happens without it, just watch the Hollywood blockbuster "War of the worlds". So, full credit for these basic codes (which we simply inherit without any effort) goes to our ancestors, not us.
  2. Deep Cultural Impact - We did not invent the alphabet, did we? Someone else did. That "someone" was not "one", but "a society" or "a series of societies". All we are doing today is enjoying the rich dividends of not being born at that point in time in history when the alphabet was still evolving. We have inherited the refined and fully evolved alphabet from our forefathers and we start learning it as a matter of fact, from our nursery and KG standards. To understand what we would be without this unique advantage, imagine your situation if you had no alphabet to learn in your early years, but were told to invent one. 99% of us would have died illiterate, trying to climb trees or eke out a living from the caves! So, full credit for this advantage that is conferred upon us goes to our ancestors, and not us. (I use the word Deep to connote the immensity of time that it took to develop). Yes, this logic naturally can be extended further, and we can clearly see that a hundred years from now, our grand-grand-children will be enjoying the fruits of our labour - imagine what Facebook and Orkut would have evolved into by then, and just visualise what medical science would have become by then! Do you really think you will want our grand-grand-children to take full credit of science and technology's state of affairs as it will exist then? Naturally not! A lot of that will be owed to you, the generation that's evolving it today, using the building blocks left for us by those who preceded us.
  3. Deep Scientific Impact - The alphabet and the seemingly basic cultural memes are elementary tools that help us stand up in modern society as "humans". But there are refined versions of these tools, like scientific theories and facts that help us evolve really fast as "modern complex humans" able to live in a technological society. You may take pride in your scores and marks in the school tests and college exams, but who designed the theories you are using so effortlessly? Did you invent ANY ONE of these? Or even a part of any one of these? NO. It's a one-in-a-million chance that YOU will invent/discover anything of lasting value to mankind. Yes, your contribution will help things improve incrementally, but chances are rare that you will do something that totally changes things. Individually, we all are pretty feeble creatures. Our wonder lies in our cumulative wisdom, the sparks amongst us that shine so strong that they illuminate everyone around, howsoever mediocre. Albert Einstein famously said - "All I have done is stand on the shoulders of giants who came before me and look farther afield than would have been possible had I done it all by myself." So it is true that all we do is take what is already available in society, make it our own (by paying a price - time or money we spend) and move on claiming full "ownership" of that knowledge. But that knowledge is not ours! Even copyright and patent-holders are not truly the owners of what they have made. Come to think of it! A significant part of their incomes must be donated to charity as a mark of respect for the generations (that came earlier) and contributed towards the basic tools that enabled these people to build something bigger and better. Could Google have existed without the alphabet, the University system, the decimal system, the microprocessors, the legal system, and the pioneers of the algorithms? Sergei and Larry are lucky they had all of that handed over to them on a platter while they were growing up.
  4. Immediate Societal Acceptance - no man (and woman) is anything or anybody unless the existing society accepts his/her creation and applauds it. So the brutal truth is - no matter how good you think you are, if others do not think so, and express so, you are a nobody! So who makes whom here? Are we making "ourselves" or are others making us? Anyone rude enough to feel he has made his own destiny, is missing the whole point. Steve Jobs is the king of the corporate world only because we think he is uber-cool, not because he thinks so.
These are humbling thoughts. But they are helpful. They help us understand our limits, and the very nature of our own existence. Intertwined destinies.

So if all this is correct, why do people not see it this way? Not anyone's fault really. We humans are so caught up in our day-to-day affairs of existence, that it is very difficult for most of us to see the bigger picture that lies ahead. So forget about the big picture that lies behind! Just pick up the newspapers on first of January 2010 and see the headlines - they all will talk of "inventing the future" in the next 10 years. Very few will talk about how we reached here (that will have no value for advertisers!). Nothing wrong with that. This is human nature. We always look ahead, and it is too much to expect people to keep remembering the past!

Well, so does Rajkumar Hirani (3 Idiots fame) deserve all the success he has? Does Aamir Khan deserve it? Yes, they do, but the primary reason they are sooooo successful is that they delved deep into what existed already (themes, concepts, learnings, thoughts, people, processes...) and dug up things more intensely than most others did. And then they connected these seemingly disparate pieces so well, that it all added up to something fantastic. But even they wouldn't be what they are, without "us" - their fans! So there.

Honestly, I can guarantee that there are at least ten more Rajkumar Hiranis out there who are more talented than "the" Rajkumar Hirani, but they never got the chance, the break, or the good luck to showcase themselves. Same holds true for Sandeep Manudhane as well.

So, should we lose all internal motivation, now that we have read all this? Not at all. Human history has been one of continuous striving. From the Egyptian pyramids to the Harappan civilisation, and Alexander's conquests to the European Renaissance.. we always strive no matter what. Our destiny is tied with this inner urge to strive. And the "achievers" amongst us those who have this sense of striving exhibited publicly the strongest. Yes, if we agree with what's written here, then we will surely feel a "different sense" of accomplishment every time now. We will not ascribe 100% credit of our successes to ourselves, but to the "collective ourselves", and I think that'll be a fairly good idea, given the modern context of global cynicism and chaos!

I know this post will force a lot of "achievers" to shift in their chairs, but I wrote what I strongly feel, and will love hearing critical comments! (Will more than love hearing praises, as this was a self-made blogpost. Ha ha!)

Cheers - have a wonderfully positive year 2010 ahead.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Aal izz well !

Saw the season bollywood blockbuster "3 Idiots" yesterday. Here are my observations titled under The Good, and The Bad! This post does not detail the whole movie plot/sub-plots (which you can check on Wikipedia) but only my observations. So this post will be useful only for those who have seen the movie :-)
Before you begin, please remember I am an IIT Delhi graduate, and an educationist for 17 years. These were precisely the theme elements of this movie.

The Good

  1. The youthfulness of the theme is refreshing. Young faces (almost adolescentish), fresh dialogues, fresh new vocabulary, peep inside a leading engineering college's supposed daily life.. all make for a good combination.
  2. Aamir Khan is superb. His simplicity in carrying out his role, aptly supported by Madhavan and Sharman is enough to keep you glued to your seats.
  3. The desire of the Director Rajkumar Hirani to give a strong social message through slickly crafted movies is worth applauding. Given his talent, he could have easily made slicker commercial flicks that would draw in more money without any social message(s). But he has ensured he keeps churning out movies with a message. Good work sir! All strength to you.
  4. Humour! Since I am a humour freak, I loved the mature sense-of-humour used throughout the movie. Quite dangerous on some instances, although!
  5. The simple message - teach what is direct, understandable and usable - is something I have always practised and hence could relate to, and appreciate.
  6. The human values portrayed deserve an applause - help otherse even if they have nothing to offer / be grateful to those who helped you / have a sense of humour in tough situations / when it's action time, don't dither / judge people by their character, not the price of brands they can afford
  7. "Aal izz wayle" is a superb theme! It is very refreshing, very entertaining, and very very positive. All is well here!
  8. I liked that though they pulled punches on the Director ViruS, but they never really "insulted" him in any way. They stopped short of that always. (The urinating scene is open to controversial interpretations)
The Bad

  1. Display of a ragging scene as part of initiation into the first year of engineering, is not a good idea. Ragging is a punishable offence, and the Supreme Court of India has been exercised on this matter for long enough now for filmmakers to understand the importance of not taking any chances of portraying it in their movies, howsoever mature, for the danger of trivialising the issue.
  2. Use of some objectionable Hindi words was overdone. I think they could have done with a 50% cut in the use of such words. When watching with kids, it gets uncomfortable.
  3. The whole idea of Aamir Khan joining ICE to help his guardian father's incapable son get a degree surrogately, is objectionable. It significantly dents other positive moral virtues being preached in the movie.
  4. The movie's ending balances Chatur's successful corporate career with Rancho's highly successful scientific career. There is a slight hint of disparagement towards "primary school teachers" in the sequence, and the message anyway is difficult to understand at that point in time.
  5. Drinking liquor is shown as a regular and quite-a-normal affair. That's pretty dangerous, and it may send a signal to many! Pia's drunken outpouring is explainable though.
  6. The quality of Hostel infrastructure shown in pretty unrealistic. I remember by IIT Delhi hostel toilets - aarrgh!
  7. The idea that those who cram and crack college exams was portrayed well, but got overdone. I mean, do students really distract others before exams so their grades can improve, using tactics shown in the movie? (I know, I know the Director reserves creative freedom, but it stretches the imagination a tad too much for people like me who have seen all this at close quarters).
  8. Rancho's suggestion that grades should not be publicly displayed is a good idea, but in India, it will not work. A better idea is to display only roll numbers and grades, and not names. That will be a good balance between the needs of transparency and decency.
  9. For the point no.8 above, the argument given by Rancho that when you visit a Doctor, and he finds your protein levels are low (something like that), does he show it on TV? But this is wrong logic. We are not competing against 200 more people in protein tests. So..
  10. Three idiots were seen driving a scooter on streets of Delhi (I'm right?) without wearing helmets. A seriously wrong portrayal!  (though I totally agree with Rancho's driving Raju's ailing father facing an emergency to the hospital alongwith Pia on the same scooter).
  11. The whole message of the movie got garbled at the end (at least as far as I am concerned) when Rancho turns out to be a great inventor / scientist and hence checkmates Chatur's claims to superior material success implying his methods being better. I would have been happier if Rancho was a school teacher encouraging his students to invent/discover things as they wished, and then bravely would counter Chatur's claims to material success being better.
  12. Corporate recruiters will generally not hire you if you tell them that you are on a wheel-chair because you were rusticated for an unmentionable act and then tried to commit suicide. The graciously magnanimous recruiters shown are a dream for all colleges! Ha ha
Before I close, here are the really hilarious moments

  • "Tum Gujarati logon ke khane itne khatarnak kyon hote hain?" (why do you Gujaratis have such dangerously named foods?) -  Dhokla, Fafda, Khakhra, Thepla ..
  • "What? Pia Chanchad? No no.. I won't change my surname after marriage!"
  • "What? Pia Wangdu? No no.. I won't change my surname after marriage!"
  • "Millimeter, go get this from the Director's Office.. here is the key" (and both the Director and Aamir throw a key towards Millimeter.. Aamir's is the duplicate stolen one for which he has just been punished!)
  • "I was born at 3:15 and at 3:16 my destiny was pronounced by Dad. Mera beta Engineer banega!"
  • The politician is laughing heartily when Chatur is speaking out his crammed speech with all invectives inserted.. but the moment the joke is on him, the politician gets upset, and leaves!
So turns out education is a fairly complex thing, with everyone having their ideas about how to revolutionise the whole system, redefine the whole concept and reinvent the way the world should work! Strength to everyone, my Lord, strength to everyone.

And yes, I hate the popcorns priced at Rs 50, 70 and 100! Come on multiplexes, days of super-profit mongering ought to be over!  (the problem is - with kids, you can't even say No. Ha ha)

Friday, December 25, 2009

The great turning point!

Turns out 2009 was a great turning point. A culmination of several mega trends worldwide, this year saw a decisive shifting on many fronts. As news of various events, big and small, made their way to eager ears, the sensitive ones could pick rumblings of bigger trends to follow. Decisive trends.
Let me summarise my learnings from the year that’s folding up, and my understanding of what the next year, and decade hold in store for us.

1) Unipolarity is dead. Long live G-2
The singular superpower of this world – the US – finally acknowledged that it is no longer capable of running the world single-handedly. This capitulation was prompted by its economic collapse and consequent shaming (in front of the whole world), and its loss of confidence on its ability to innovate enough to pull itself (and the world) out of a recession, which threatened to turn into a depression. The US openly touted the idea of a G-2 that suddenly (and maybe unhappily for China) uplifted China from a “developing” to a “superpower” status! The mandarins in Beijing must have been shocked to see such a rapid surrender of this singular status by the US, irrespective of a conciliatory President in the Oval office. Anyway, they accepted it gladly, and are now discovering that there is a big price one needs to pay for superpower status – humility, decency and willingness to help those in need. These aren’t exactly traits Beijing is reputed for. So expect lots of incongruous and asymmetric statements and actions in the coming year, as the new world order settles and finds an equilibrium. I do not expect it to be smooth, neither do I expect it to be hassle-free. It’s not guaranteed either!

2) Business on the back-foot

The amazing liberty taken by the investment bankers in finest of US firms led to the sub-prime collapse. That in turn led to a wholesale bashing of the ideology of capitalism itself. Although that is a bit too much, but a world where 1 billion go to bed hungry each day, it was only expected. All the more, as the spillover from Wall Street to Main Street this time was much quicker, and more deleterious. So we are truly globalised now! What happens in the US banks affects us locally, almost everywhere in the world. Due to this sudden (12 months is surely sudden!) credibility crisis for capitalism’s founding principles, there is an environment of chaos and disbelief all around. Businesses and Business-leaders are stunned. Unable to believe that they could be so easily within the reach of something so pernicious, they are now slowly struggling to get their act together. Helped in a great measure by the relentless and unimaginable size bailouts offered by various governments, business has managed to save the façade from completely crumbling. A smiling face has been retained, while the back office got taken over by the governments. None of them (business and government) is eager to let it continue this way, and it is a matter of time before most bailouts result in either total collapse of the organization, or repayment of the bailout funds. The second is more likely. So we learnt some really good lessons here – a) you swing the needle too much towards the liberty side of the scale, and you degenerate capitalism into debauchery, b) governments are no longer willing to sit and watch industries die, even if that means pumping in unheard of amounts of monies into corporations, and c) business has to now work all over from scratch to regain its glory days.
I distinctly remember that through the early years of 2000s, companies like Lehman, GE and AIG used to be taught in B-schools are paragons of virtue and positive aggression. Their leaders seem to have forgotten that there is a limit to risk-taking, and healthy business demands reining in the testosterone at the right moment. Tut tut.
The coming decade will be a struggle for business to gain its social legitimacy all over again. I am confident that they will do it ultimately. While most companies anyway remain low-profile and generally good for society, the really big ones will have to go out of the way (can’t remain low profile that way!) and ensure that the broken edifices are rebuilt beautifully, ethically and convincingly.

3) It’s my life no more!
An amazing (and almost oxymoron like) social situation is evolving. The explosion of social media (blogs, twitter, orkut, facebook..) has created unlimited scope for micro-cultures to flourish. And at the same time, consumerist consumption driven by the large-scale (almost global) creation of such micro-cultures is driving climate change that is unacceptable to all. So you have a peculiar situation – Capitalism gave us the fantastic change to live life kingsize by enjoying almost every material thing we could imagine, and in the process, we ended up creating so much carbon (and greenhouse gases) that the world’s future is at stake. I heard someone say “It’s my life.” Good, but no more sir! Your actions (of consumption) are leaving carbon footprints on the environment, and hence it is totally unacceptable to everyone. But where does one begin to cut things down? Where does one rationally understand and take action? Where do nations come together and decide and act? All these are the grand questions that mankind is left to find answers to. If not solved properly, this century may well prove to be the last happy century for man as we have known him. It’s the tipping point, truly. And all of us, in our lifetimes, will see a large part of this story unfold before us.
So suddenly, post COP15, there is a worldwide sense of discomfort and disbelief that nations are unable to actually agree to specific goals that can be made to work. In our hearts, we surely believe things will work out (should work out), but the real decisions are still to be made. It is actually boiling down to the lifestyle issue, finally.

4) India undecided
Amidst all this noise and clutter and uncertainty, India seems to stand tall. Call it wisdom or lethargy, our policymakers never allowed India to fully integrate into the world economy. The benefit of that is there for everyone to see. We escaped narrowly! Our banks had minimal exposure to the lusty and lascivious sub-prime market of the US, and hence the ripple effect never hit us hard. Our recession mood (if you can call it) was largely due to secondary reasons – IT companies losing out on big new contracts due to shrinking budgets, big hikes in food prices locally, poor recruitment scene at leading campuses, government’s failure to create large-scale assets through big projects – and so on. Grudgingly, even China understands the important role that the juggernaut called India – 17% of world’s population – has to play in the global economy now. India, however seems unsure of its standing. Though we are assertive enough (we did not sign the NPT) and decent enough (we did not attack Pakistan post 26/11), our exact position needs to be recalibrated now. The world needs more precise definitions.
Remember, China is dead scared of India. President Hu Jintao applies his lathi everytime someone dares question his or the Party’s judgement. Indian leaders wield no such lathi. They are under the democracy scanner always. Despite this apparent lack of strength, Indian democracy goes from strength to strength. This makes India inherently much stronger than the monolithic but brittle Chinese polity. In the next decade, expect something dramatic to happen along those lines in China. History bears witness to the fact that when the democracy tide turns, no force is able to hold its pressure.

I find these times amazing! Since we are an integrated world now (at least online), the ripples travel really fast. I hope that mankind’s cumulative wisdom is able to hold itself really well, and that by 2100 AD, we would be on the route to eternal prosperity having contained the Capitalistic libido at reasonable levels, stabilized the population (at 9 billion) and with a sure agreement that space exploration and colonizing other worlds is our ultimate destiny. (What a thing to say in the middle of a world recession!)

I wish you the best for a great 2010 ahead. Success is a state of mind. If you have something valuable to offer the world, trust your instincts and go ahead. The world will reciprocate. Best of luck!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A horror called online IIM-CAT 2009

I write this blogpost with a lot of pain, and a sense of deep responsibility towards the students community.

The Common Admission Test (CAT) for the Indian Institutes of Management is touted as one of the best entrance tests of its kind, and has close to 160 colleges linked with it. This year, the entire process of conducting the test has been taken "online", and has been outsourced at a hefty price tag of around USD 40 million (for a period of 5 years, as reported in leading mainline English dailies) to a company called Prometric of USA.

I have been tracking the IIMCAT for 20 years now, and have been analysing it professionally for more than 12 years now.

Today (Saturday 28/11) was the first day in the series of 10, when CAT is planned in 2 slots each day (morning and evening). Thousands of students across India wrote the test, or tried to write it. Students and faculty of my institute PT education too wrote the test, and hence we learnt everything from a first person perspective.

Before moving on, here is a near-perfect unfortunate prediction made by us in August 2009 regarding the possible fate of this amazing unprepared exercise being contemplated by IIMs. CLICK ON IMAGE BELOW to watch this video (esp. 5:00 - 5:30)

I observed the entire proceedings with interest across several cities in India, and here are my observations.

Shameful dereliction of duty by Testing authorities

  1. The testing authority is of a true Yankee pedigree. They hardly understand the Indian cultural milieu, and have tried to transport a whole system from the US to India without adequate and much-needed local cultural adaptations. The IIMs are desperate to make the CAT an international test, and they think that only Prometric can help them do it. (on a philosophical note, I would think otherwise, as we know that the American model of capitalism itself under a dark, ominous cloud)
  2. My first brush with their insensitivity was when they uploaded the first training video (for CAT applicants) in August on YouTube, and I found that two Indian looking characters speaking in amazingly irritating American accents were trying to share process gyan with Indian students. My reaction that day was "IIMCAT to gayi paani mey. This company will ruin it this year". Please refer my blogpost on this topic.
  3. I strongly feel that in India, there is no point in using an American accent to create and peddle your stuff. Indian accents will do just fine with 99.9% of us (as for the rest, they are already in the US so forget about them!). This video itself revealed two possible thought patterns - a false sense of tremendous superiority, and a total lack of understanding of cultural nuances. My fear was born that day.
  4. The entire process of registrations of CAT Applicants was bogged down in procedural errors, and tremendous amount of heartburn for students. We are trainers, and know firsthand how much stress it created for students and families. Far removed physically from the scene of action, and now shielded behind the veil of "online" purdah, the IIMs and Prometric did nothing but issue clarification after clarification. Talk to any applicant and she will tell you that the software was uploaded without any testing. It was a beta! A beta, running the CAT process. Imagine.
  5. Today, on the first day of the hallowed CAT, the entire system came tumbling down.
    • The test was cancelled at more than 10 locations in India. Thousands of hapless, stressed-out and anxious students were given no clue as to what will happen next. I found students crying, desperate and totally lost out.
    • At some location, students were made to wait for upto 5 hours (without food, water, toilet facilities) and then tersely told to either behave or go away (and we will let you know of your test slot by sms and email).
    • Countless errors cropped up at almost all test locations. The software acted funny, and students were left totally bewildered.
    • Many students lost out even after working the test for almost the entire duration - a girl at Delhi reported that in the last 30 minutes, the screen went blank.
    • For several minutes and hours, at many locations, the test was delayed beyond the official start time (that now seems to be the least of their mistakes!)
    • The staff present on the scene was either from Prometric, or from the local Engineering colleges hired for testing purpose, or from the party Prometric subcontracted to further - NIIT.
    • Students reported that the quality of most of these people was so pathetic that it was useless to expect solutions from them! At one location, one of the invigilators kept informing students reading out from some official document stating that "... and if you do not follow our instructions, we will report a file. We will report a file".   Report a file? Or file a report?  MORONS.
    • The physical security at all locations was supertight. The actual testing process at many - totally unreliable. It is like putting the best rocket launching pad in place, and then putting a bullock cart hoping it will take off in full gusto to reach the Moon. And beyond (remember, it's a 5 year contract!)
  6. To all this going on, the official reactions of IIMs and Prometric (till today evneing) were
    • There are no problems
    • There maybe some rescheduling of tests for some candidates
    • These are isolated incidents
    • Nothing has been cancelled
    • No servers have crashed
    • Don't un-necessary blow things out of proportion
    • Errors will happen, what else did you expect in such a big exercise
Things Prometric does not know about Indian students
(and the IIMs ought to have told them)

  1. India is a developing nation, not a post-modern society like the US
  2. In India, writing a competitive test is not an individual affair, it is a family affair
  3. Parents mortgage their possessions and property (in many cases) to help their kids prepare for such tests from big cities
  4. The social reputation attached with success (and failure) in writing competitive tests in India is ABSENT in the USA
  5. People work hard for upto 24 months preparing for the CAT - that's not a joke
  6. The local dynamics of India are quite different - when a technician tells you that a job will be done, he means it will be done in the 3rd or the 4th attempt (Hence, at least 2 dry runs must be done before attempting anything as grand as an online pan-India IIM-CAT) for the first time
Strategies used to handle things so far
  1. Give no time to anyone to react - almost all important instructions come at the last moment, including the eminently enjoyable and farcical gag order for students released 2 days ago advising them to "keep your mouths shut after the test is over or else 2 years in jail"  Ha ha ha, lol!
  2. Make assumptions about things - how can we be wrong on anything? We are too big to fail
  3. Even if we fail, what? - ultimately, can students really do anything, except meekly submit and bear the brunt of our naivete and inefficiences bred out of arrogance
Today, the media was livid at all this. I interacted with many channels and newspapers today, and realised that everyone is worked up on this. Everyone, except maybe those who were responsible for all this.

What has this mess done to the reputation of the IIM-CAT? Well, a lot of damage. And it has personally made me very sad to see a grand Indian institution - the IIM-CAT - go literally down the drain (on the first day) the way it went.

I was also shocked to see the spineless approach of some of my own trainer colleagues from the industry, who advocated in a press meet that "Well what's done is done. Let's be positive now". I responded on the spot that "Tell this to the student whose entire effort of 2 years was dashed to dust today by the ignoramuses".

What we expect now
  1. A public apology by the IIMs and Prometric - come on! Accept that you goofed up big time and say sorry. It will only increase your stature.
  2. A "Plan B" - the alternative action plan must have been announced by Saturday evening itself. It was not. Apparently, they were just not prepared. Students of even elementary management science know that contingency planning is the key to successful long term execution.
  3. Compensation to distressed students - the time, cost and efforts of thousands of students who were inconvenienced beyond imagination.. is there nothing to it? Will the HRD ministry wake up and take note of what's happening? How long with the ministry allow such an autonomy (which is nothing but a licence to play around with kids' future)
I feel strongly about inefficient Professors masquerading as world-class Project Managers and in the process tarnishing an institution. Honestly sirs, give this test-conduction to me, and I will do a better job of it. You claim to teach best of management science to students, and is this how you put it into practice? Shame. For the kind of moneys being spent, this is hardly the ROI we expect. We were looking forward to a terrific testing experience, and what we got was a weekend adventure trip down the big vertical canyon.

Maybe it's truly time for you to return to basics - as Dr Peter F Drucker would have said "Efforts alone are of little use, results must follow".

May better sense prevail. May the students' efforts get the right benchmark, and may Indian management education once again enter its halcyon days.


Important tips for students (IIM-CAT takers) - the authorities have said that testing will continue as per schedule. Nothing is cancelled. Please report in time, on all days. Do not at all assume that tests are cancelled. And as for the tests on day 1, the tests were easy (compared to last year), and anyone who has taken proper training should do well. Those who are unfortunate in not being able to write the test, should wait for an sms or email telling them of the fresh testing slot. So here's wishing you BEST OF LUCK for a great future ahead!

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Secret Sauce of Entrepreneurship

I was sitting with a senior friend of mine, who happens to be an entrepreneur and a star academic performer all through his life. Since he has recently turned an entrepreneur (after 10 years of service experience), our discussion veered towards the pressures and pleasures of being an Entrepreneur. "I have been forced to explore every part of my mind, body and soul after I turned an entrepreneur. It was never like this earlier. I think I have known more of myself in the past 2 years than I did in my decade long service experience", he said.
I was startled by his statement! Positively startled. Since I do not have any corporate service experience (the only thing I did was a 2 months summer training with Tata Motors (then TELCO) at their Pimpri Pune plant in May-June 1992) I could not relate fully to what he said, but believed it, and hence my amazement.

Three things make an Entrepreneur's life different
  1. Life and Death decisions on a daily basis in the early years
  2. Turning absolutely rational and objective
  3. Tremendous stress levels, and no one to share
These three defining aspects of an Entrepreneur's life are not be found anywhere else. Let us see them one by one.

First of all, in the early years, almost all the decisions that an Entrepreneur makes are not just tactical, they are strategic. Each of them has the force, the power, the seed to turn into something strategic that affects the enterprise strongly. So, the Entrepreneur has to treat each decision from a 360 degrees perspective. Each decision has to be analysed (in her mind) so thoroughly that the mind may start revolting after a point in time. And remember - there is no time to delay decisions. Opportunities just whiz past before you can nail them down. So, that's the first defining feature of the daily life of an Entrepreneur - Life and Death decisions on a a daily basis, to be made really quickly.

How many people in regular service do that? Even if they knew, would they take the pains to do it? Definitely not. It is too much, it really is. Hence I say this is a "defining" feature of the life of an Entrepreneur.

Secondly, an Entrepreneur realises early on his career that he has to be extremely rational and objective in dealings with people. She learns that being emotional about people starts turning negative for the entire enterprise. There is something sinister about being emotional about people in an enterprise. There are many who start taking advantage of you, the moment they realise you have an apparent soft corner for them. Because we should not forget (i.e. the Entrepreneur should not forget) that behind every person working in his enterprise there is a family, a set of relationships who may not entirely be friendly to the enterprise. I have personally encountered people who were positively hostile to my entire existence! To deal with them on a daily basis, to ensure that the enterprise works well profitably despite such people around, to ensure that the tomorrow of the enterprise is brighter than the today, is the sacred duty of the Entrepreneur, and the Entrepreneur alone. So does this mean he should treat people like objects? No, no, no, a million times no. What this means is that he should treat every situation objectively. Every interaction has to be measured from the perspective of whether the entire enterprise will benefit or not, whether the longer term objectives of the customers will be served or not, whether the enterprise will gain more profits or not.. it is as basic as that. And not many people can turn themselves into such "objective thinking machines". I am aware of the risks of saying these things - many will pounce on this opportunity to castigate all Entrepreneurs as mindless and emotional brutes but that's not true. You want proof? Meet those Entrepreneurs who have failed in any of their ventures. They will testify.

So, let me wrap this argument up by saying that "the best emotion about your employees is to ensure that their jobs are protected through the flourishing of the enterprise". I rest my case on this one.

Finally, the third defining feature of an Entrepreneur's life is the insane stress levels she has to endure. It's like a tonne of weight on her head, every moment of her living existence. Since the "final" responsibility of almost everything rests on the Entrepreneur's shoulders, the stress levels can assume gargantuan proporations. In early years, when cashflows are not properly defined, and profit streams are unpredictable, and reserves are negative, these stress levels are defined by the existential dilemma of making it to the next week safe and sound. This stress can totally change an Entrepreneur's perspective on life. It can make her ill, break up her marriage, or change his personality. It can end up doing nothing of this, as well. All depends on how the Entrepreneur plans his work, his attitude, and his life. No matter how you plan it, one thing is for sure - Stress Level is Guaranteed Superhigh always.

So if entreprenurship is truly this difficult, why do people do it?

Three reasons why people turn Entrepreneurs
  1. Personal ambition to be different, famous and to achieve a lot
  2. The itch to be on their own, and not to serve anyone
  3. Tremendous nervous energy dying to break free every moment
First of all, Entrepreneurs are ambitious people. They want to live life to the fullest. And this goes well beyond collecting luxuries and spending classy vacations with family. It is all about personal ambition, and the kick they get out of creating something no one thought they could. All this comes with the tremendously sexy reward of "fame" and "glory" that's almost impossible to resist. And fame feeds bravery consistently. Achievement feeds efforts without fail. Remember Sir Richard Branson, who can go to atrocious lengths to ensure fame (for himself and his companies).

Entrepreneurs are sure of the fact that by serving "under" someone they will simply waste their lives. Not that they have a large ego that's crying out, but they feel that their potential will remain truly underutilised by choosing not be on their own. This is a very strong driving force. It helps Entrepreneurs brave the most strident of all criticisms from everyone around them, in the founding years. When everyone is sarcastic and caustic, they brave the winds because in their hearts they know that glory is imminent. That mad, almost insane, feeling is a force strong enough to drive them through the dark alley of social ostracism. The real tragedy appears when the Entrepreneur realises that he has become totally subservient to the interest of God himself - the Customer! Remember Steve Jobs - the ultimate monomaniac who realised that unless he treats customers as the God, his products will not succeed.

A lot of Entrepreneurs are people who have a lot of physical and emotional energy that's visible in their bodies. They can't sit still for long. They want to keep creating new thing, new objects, new ideas, new stuff that people will appreciate. Remember Shah Rukh Khan.. he cannot remain just an actor. He has to do many more things at the same time.

So, if you are planning to turn an Entrepreneur, here are 3 ways to help you decide!
  1. How would you like to see yourself at the end of life? A clean, smooth, unhurt individual - or someone with bruises, scars and gashes earned from adventures and encounters unthinkable? If it's the second you relish, welcome to the world of Entrepreneurship.
  2. Does the idea of sacrificing the pleasures of personal life (like long weekends) and those lazy evenings with your family troubles you a lot? Then shoo!
  3. Does failure motivate you to do better next time? Did your family teach you that being a good loser is more important than being a good winner? If yes, then welcome!
This blogpost is a quick roundup of some Entrepreneurship essentials. It's a complex topic, and I'll keep writing more.
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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Crystal ball gazing

If you are not a declared astrologer, then making predictions is dangerous business. If you are one, however, then you can always save your skin by blaming the stars, and of course take credit otherwise. I am not an astrologer, and I still like making predictions.
My predictions are based on my experience, and regular study of the world around. One can, with due practice, decipher patterns and trends that are visible. Variables seem to link up in some predictable ways. And outcomes seem inevitable.

So, here goes!
  1. Barack Obama will grow weak over the next one year. His approval ratings will dip regularly. The dissenting Republican (and Democrats') voices will grow shriller. The structural weakness of the American economy will reflect ever more in his overt gestures of accommodation towards other States, of course, including China. The US economy will show artifical signals of recovering, but fundamentally will slide further down the slippery road of humongous deficits and no concrete plans to plug the gap. If anything goes wrong bigtime, it could be the beginning of the end for his Presidency as well.
  2. China will increasingly grow suspicious of India, and issue dangerously provocative statements every few weeks. The basically robust domestic demand, and Indian politicians' rather strong stand on Arunachal and Pakistan will harden China's outlook on India. Its support to Pakistan will continuously grow, and its entanglement in Nepal and its extremists will grow too. The open-ended support in South Asia's strategic matters offered by US will enbolden China to issue reckless statements. The imminent change of leadership in China will further make it nervous of everything in the world even remotely sounding 'anti-Chinese' and will provoke wild official reactions. The Dalai Lama is headed for seriously troubled times ahead.
  3. Indian industrial growth will remain underoptimised. Due to lack of creation of hard assets fast enough, we will miss out on asset creation possibilities badly. Our slow bureaucratic machinery will kill several percentage points of growth otherwise possible. Remember Ultra Mega Power Plants? 3G auctions? Grand highway projects? Nothing is moving for months. Do we have that kind of time? When our bureaucrats should be working overtime ensuring all possible clearances for big projects, they are busy doing god knows what.
  4. The poor rate of asset creation will badly impact the Indian job market. New jobs will not get created fast enough, as companies will discover ways of generating profits without generating too many new jobs. Many have already discovered costs they were blind to earlier. So, the spectacular episode of solid profit growth without accompanying job-growth will continue over the next one year at least in corporate India. Corporates will use two basic tools - cut process costs mercilessly (without firing too many existing people, although), and Multitask HR. Expect a lot of rationalisation of attitude in the corporate world, as the flab accumulated during the boom years (2003-2007) gets slashed and trim sets in.
  5. Israel will do something really stupid with either Hamas/Fatah or with Iran. It will launch another bloody attack on their colonies, or on Iran's nuclear installations. Either way, it will spark a series of wildly unpredictable affairs. America is growing weaker by the day, and the Israeli Prime Minister has (surprisingly for everyone) shown camouflaged disregard for President Obama's strong advice regarding 'respect' for settling the Palestine issue by creating two states permanently. The wildly popular Cairo speech of Obama has not been backed by ground level action by the US administration, and a great opportunity has been almost lost.
  6. Indian government will launch, and then dither, and then withdraw an offensive against the Naxalites covering 223 districts of the nation. The stupid parochialism of politicians of the affected states will tie down the Home Minister's hands by the incessesant demands for more state level automony in handling the crisis (which they have mishandled for decades now). This fracas will demoralise the paramilitaray and police forces, and we can expect some strong statements from those quarters as well. A beginning has been made by a senior serving Air Force official recently (although in a different context).
  7. There will be no conviction of any corporate honcho in the Global Crisis related scam. The US prosecutors will try their level best to nail culprits responsible for the breakdown of the securitisation markets and the consequent collapse of much of world economic momentum, but will fail in doing so, because of inherent complexity in the way responsibilites are defined in such markets. This will seriously dampen American public's faith in the 'purity' of capitalism (given their penchant for fairness and equity, and their sense of justice).
  8. Food prices inflation in India will continue for some time. There is no respite in sight in the immediate future. It is painful to see no coordinated action on this front.
  9. The HRD ministry in India can see a sudden change of fortunes. The rapid push to gung-ho privatisation (in a backdrop of gloomy world affairs) can backfire, if any serious and important politician takes issue with it. Very interestingly, the Minister has had a free run so far. India does not seem ready yet - at a social level - to digest massive changes to the fundamental fabric of the education "market", and the proposed legistations could spark not just debate, but a lot more!
  10. Copenhagen will be a dud. Except the mandatory formal statement, nothing will come out of it. Another great opportunity lost. Expect nothing for the next 2-3 years at least. The economic cost is just too much for the developed nations to digest, and in the backdrop of a recovering global economy, China will not take chances with stipulations that bind it in any manner whatsoever.
Well, that's about it. Now I wait and watch, and pray to God almighty that some of these never happen.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The song of the Universe

Weekends are great! I usually don't take both days off, but the sheer feeling of a Saturday is cool. Of all my school days, the ones I surely remember are the half days on Saturdays.. the masti and dhamaal, and the Sunday with a promise of day-long cricket. As we grow up, weekends serve slightly different purposes. Wives settle long-standing (past 5 days') scores with husbands, kids clamour for every bit of your attention, the fishpond suddenly starts looking dirtier, and the joy of playing cricket with your buddies is oh-so-near-yet-so-far as you drive your family around. But I do put my weekends to some good use. I read a lot. Usually too, I do so, but weekends are meant for some serious stretches of reading. I remember a recent Sunday when I started reading stuff at 6 in the morning and ended at 10 in the night, with brief interludes (7 in all) for food and urgent reminders of my humanity. One of the themes I love to seriously read on such Sundays is - The Universe and our place in it.

Dr Carl Sagan can take credit for arousing this passion in me while I was young. Having read everything he has written so far (I think), I find his style unmatched, his caliber unbeatable, and his cool quotient truly hot. My mother would look at me suspiciously every time I would ask for 150 or 250 bucks to buy his next hardbound book (that was 1980s)! This blogpost is dedicated to Dr Carl Sagan, who taught me the virtue of being curious about things you can afford not to be curious about. Here goes!

The rumblings keep pouring in from all directions. Radiations of all shades, carrying hidden in their core meanings of eons, maybe intelligent meanings. They pierce the upper crust of our atmosphere, striking the lower ranges, and then falling on the surface of this puny planet. Hidden in these radiations are messages from the rest of the universe - most of them natural and unintended, some, maybe not! And for tens of lacs of years, life has gone on oblivious of all this. Creatures of all shades have come, ruled, and gone. The radiations keep coming. They are the message of God's finest creation - the Universe we live in.

The Universe is a fantastic thing. We live in it, yet have begun to fathom it only recently. Most of us are least bothered about what it is and what makes it tick, as long as it gives us our daily cuppa without interruption. Some of us do wonder, and then, awestruck - give up! Few of us keep trying and proudly claim that some of its secrets have revealed themselves to us.

The basic problem with understanding the Universe is its size. The sheer size relative to the size of a typical life form on Earth is so large, that the entire effort of creating a relationship starts looking unreasonable. If the Universe is the size of a football field, then Earth is maybe a small part of a grain of sand in it. Maybe smaller. This size variation puts a big brake on even a sensible person's effort to understand the Universe. And the modern material man has no incentive to dwell on it any further - none of his bonuses, incentives, growth prospects, or designations depend on fathoming what this horrendous thing called the Universe really is.

But interestingly, very recently, huge strides have been made in man's efforts to place himself properly in the whole scheme of things. It looks funny, but is true. Man has actually begun to understand what this whole stuff is made up of really, and how. As they say, from infinity to infinity. From the largest numbers possible (billions of years) to the smallest of dimensions at the atomic level, man's efforts have continued unceased.

The top developments in recent past that have enlarged our understanding are
  1. The deployment of the Hubble telescope in outer space
  2. String of outer space missions by NASA, including Mars rover landing
  3. Study of Jupiter-comet collision and its impact on the planet
  4. Pioneering efforts by a worldwide team of scientists and laymen on the SETI project
Just like the larger infinities were experiment by CERN further promises to reveal the smaller infinites to all of us. It is probing the fundamental question - what are protons and similar basic particles made up of.

In light of all this technical hullabaloo, one of the most profound questions man has asked is "are we alone in the Universe?"

What this means is
  • Is intelligent life an aberration? Is Earth alone in this achievement?
  • Are there other life forms capable of asking this question, elsewhere other than Earth?
  • What is their nature? What is their physical structure?
  • Can we ever contact them?
  • The radiations striking Earth every moment - do they carry seeds of our future relations with the other civilisations?
  • Can we send messages to others, similarly?
Now imagine you are one of the lifeforms on Earth. Actually the possibility of that is almost 100%, as anyone else reading this would make me quite proud of my writing skills, and popularity of this blog. So, you are one. As you read this and ponder upon this, you start marvelling the nature of life, the twists and turns that it has taken to reach here (i.e. till "you"), and the amazing possibilities that open up if we can somehow find out (and then connect with) lifeforms elsewhere.

This logic can be extended one step beyond. If WE sitting here can wonder upon such issues, surely, any other intelligent civilisation(s) that may have evolved to this stage will have individuals who will ponder similarly. Now many of these may be several years ahead of us on the growth phase. Actually, several million years maybe. So, they would not only have pondered, they would have attempted (contacting us, reaching out to us..) and some of them may have travelled all the way (hyperspace and all that).

These are very profound questions that boggle the mind once we even attempt asking them. But they are interesting questions. They push the limits of your mind. They force you to move beyond the provincial, the immediate, the parochial.. and think of the basic grain of our existence. I understand that not many young people may find this an interesting prospect, faced as they are with challenges of getting a job and keeping it, but still!

Some solid reading material suggested -
  • SETI project - dig up their website, and read all about them! Strongly recommended
  • Richard Feynman - read all you can written by, on and about him (it'll help you develop a love for Science and its romance)
  • Albert Einstein's biography - very critical insights on Universe and its structure
  • Vedic texts - the philosophers' perspective on it all
  • Dr Carl Sagan's writings - 'Pale Blue Dot', 'Dragons of Eden', 'Cosoms', 'Broca's Brain'
  • Check out NASA's website especially stuff on Hubble's telescope (do check the face of God photo - hummings from our distant past, 14 billion years old)
I will write much more on these areas later. Evolution is another topic I am fascinated with, and will write upon. Bear with me :-)


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